GTA V: Reporter tours Pala Springs Aerial Tramway, Alamo Sea

September 17th, 2013 | by Brett Kelman | Comments

The "Pala Springs Aerial Tramway" is seen in Grand Theft Auto V. (Marilyn Chung, The Desert Sun)

The “Pala Springs Aerial Tramway” is seen in Grand Theft Auto V as Education Reporter Brett Kelman tries out the game Tuesday in The Desert Sun newsroom. (Marilyn Chung, The Desert Sun)

“PALA SPRINGS” — I stepped on the tram platform and was struck by a moment of digital déjà vu.

It was the early morning, so only a few other people were waiting to board. A young couple, dressed head-to-toe in hiking gear, chatted quietly in the corner. Steel cables whined as they rolled through the machinery of the station. A steep mountainside stood over us all.

I had been here before, only a few days prior. On Sunday, I woke up early to ride the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway toward the top of Mount San Jacinto, which loomed over the desert city of Palm Springs. On Tuesday, I rode the “Pala Springs Aerial Tramway” to the peak of Mount Chiliad, which loomed over the fictional seaside town of Paleto Bay.

The first time it was all real. The second time, it was all just a game — but what a game it was.

On Monday night, more than 150 people, myself included, lined up outside the Palm Springs GameStop to buy Grand Theft Auto V, one of the most anticipated video games of all time, when it was released at midnight. I got there about 11 p.m., but some of the most dedicated gamers had waited outside the store since 8 p.m.

It has been reported that GTA V cost $270 million to make, and it is expected to gross more than $1 billion in profits. The game takes place in a fictionalized version of Southern California, called “San Andreas,” and focuses mostly on an alternate version of Los Angeles named “Los Santos.”

The Pala Springs Aerial Tramway is seen in Grand Theft Auto V. (Marilyn Chung, The Desert Sun)

The “Pala Springs Aerial Tramway” looms over the fictional seaside town of Paleto Bay in Grand Theft Auto V. (Marilyn Chung, The Desert Sun)

But the game also includes some local landmarks, including the previously mentioned tram and a less-than-flattering parody of the Salton Sea and its shoreline communities.

The duplication isn’t perfect, but there are far more similarities than differences. For example, the GTA V tram’s square cars don’t rotate like the real round ones, but overall the tram is an unmistakable duplicate. The “Alamo Sea” area exaggerates the low-income, rundown nature of Salton City, but the sky-blue welcome signs on the edge of town are intentionally identical.

The top photo is a GTA V trailer screenshot. The bottom photo is real.

The top photo is a GTA V trailer screenshot. The bottom photo is real.

So what does this all mean? Should we be flattered that RockStar Games, the company behind GTA V, recreated portions of the Coachella Valley in this game? Or should we be concerned that a little piece of home has been swept up in video game built around bank heists and cop killings?

Before you make up your mind, consider the series. In GTA IV, which was a mock version of New York, the “Statue of Happiness” welcomed immigrants with a Big Gulp. In the latest game, the city of Los Santos includes the fame-obsessed neighbor of “Vinewood” and the muscle-bound “Vespucci Beach,” complete with advertisements for “medicinal cocaine.” Game characters use a smart phone called the “iFruit” to stalk each other on a Facebook parody called “Life Invader.”

Honestly, in a game that is notorious for lampooning everything in reach, I’d be a little hurt if we were left out.

Education reporter Brett Kelman is also a shameless fan of video games. He can be reached on the phone at (760) 778-4642, through email at and through Twitter @TDSbrettkelman.

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